Whole new ball game is imminent for goalkeepers

Sat, May 12, 2012, 01:00

SQUARE BALL RULE:THE SQUARE ball has been one of the enduring talking points of any GAA summer and now that it has been officially removed by congress, it is set to become a hotter topic than ever.

Of all the motions passed by congress in April, there was surprisingly little fuss about the potential havoc caused by the change to one of the trickiest rules in Gaelic football. The amendment allowing attacking players to enter the small square as soon as the final pass has been made promises to remove of the most contentious aspects of the game.

But only now, with the All-Ireland championship imminent, are the full implications beginning to hit home. Judging the square ball rule was always problematic.

For decades, it was down to the referee’s judgment and before big games were televised, he made his mind up or responded to the umpire’s call and allowed or cancelled the goal. But with the advent of television cameras at many All-Ireland championship games, those judgment calls have become scrutinised by slow motion replay and analysis and more often than not they highlight just how elusive precise judgment can be when it comes to the square ball.

The idea behind the amendment is that it will remove the doubt and the vagueness and the sense of grievance that teams feel when a goal is either awarded or disallowed because of a small square infringement. And while it might do that, it could have a major bearing on the way Gaelic football is played directly in front of goal.

“From open play, I think it is taking the easy way out. I have no problem with the experimentation but I feel it is going to be a nightmare for goalkeepers,” predicts Eoin Liston, whose role as a playmaking target man on the great Kerry team of the 1970s and 1980s remains a blueprint for the top teams today.

“There was always something nice about a fella flying through and timing it right and being able to beat the goalkeeper.

“But when you have a situation when you could have a forward standing in the square, competing with the goalkeeper and maybe even blocking his path . . . I think it could lead to a lot of aggravation unless it is policed properly.”

Liston’s prediction was borne out by the recent comments by two of the best-established defenders in the modern game, Conor Gormley from Tyrone and Cork’s Michael Shields, who anticipated “real wrestling matches to get to the ball” between the full-forwards and backs. The strategy of isolating defenders and leaving them exposed to well-placed balls coming from deep is nothing new.

But the small square was always regarded as a safe haven for goalkeepers and for the last line of defence. Big imposing forwards could perch on the very edge of the line but the goalkeeper had the security of knowing that it wouldn’t be breached until the ball had already arrived in there.

There was a genuine art to the timing that forwards employed in order to elude defenders, delay their run until the ball had entered the square and still manage to accurately deflect the ball into the net or over the bar.

However, it remains exceptionally difficult to assess the legitimacy of the score in real time. The flight of the ball – particularly long, speculative shots-to-nothing that drop into the square makes it difficult to judge that alone. But to try and follow the trajectory of the ball while simultaneously gauging when the attacking player enters the square is one of the nightmarish rules which seems peculiar to the GAA: it is both too fussy and too vague.

“There is a definite advantage in that you don’t have to worry about that timing anymore,” says former Derry dual star Geoffrey McGonigle, who had the traditional full-forward physique as well as brilliantly quick hands and speed of thought. It is easy to imagine the Dungiven man thriving in the new square ball ruling. But he is not convinced that the change will make much difference in practice.

“If you get a clean contact on the ball, your goal will stand. But more often than not you are going to be in a challenge with the keeper. If Kieran Donaghy, for instance, comes in and the keeper goes to ground, the call will go the other way. So if you challenge the goalkeeper, it is still a free. If you touch him inside the square, it is still going to be a free out.

“It defeats the purpose from my point of view. If I am standing on the edge of the square and I go in to the challenge – eyes on the ball – and I knock him to the ground in the process of winning it, it is still going to be a free. It is the referee’s discretion as to whether I foul him. The 50/50 rule that applies out the field doesn’t exist there.”

Eoin Liston can recall instances when the square ball rule worked for him and against him. The most explicit complaints followed his third goal against Dublin in the 1978 All-Ireland semi-final when he may have wandered into the square seconds before John Egan’s handpass.

“There were probably questions about that one,” he says. But he points out that the instances of where it caused a major controversy are relatively rare and while he is curious to see the impact that the rule change will bring about, he is dubious about it merits.

“Is there really a need for it? The rule has always been there. I can only remember a few small instances over 30 years where it has been an issue. It isn’t an exact science, it is true. But there are several grey areas in Gaelic football – picking the ball off the ground for instance. So I wonder if this was a reaction to what happened in the Louth and Meath game.

“That wasn’t a satisfactory incident. I have no problem with bringing it in but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in time, it reverts to the way that it was.

“It is a potential bonus for forwards. But you are going to see many more embarrassed goalkeepers and I am wondering if that is a good thing.”

The consequences for goalkeepers remain to be seen but the implications are obvious.

Wexford goalkeeper Anthony Masterson illustrated his thoughts on the matter when he thanked the GPA for the gum shields they distributed to players recently. “Gonna need them now the square ball is gone,” he said.

It seems likely goalkeepers are going to spend a lot more time trying to punch the ball clear in a more crowded area. Given the increased emphasis on strategy in Gaelic football, there is little question that managers will look to exploit the new rule.

Since Jack O’Connor reinvented Kieran Donaghy as a full-forward in the Liston mould, the importance of a dominant front man has become a feature of Gaelic games. The sight of a full forward and full back challenging for a high dropping ball is one of the most elemental sights in the game.

Now, playmakers like Declan O’Sullivan or Paul Kerrigan can use their accuracy to rain measured passes into the small square. The importance of a physically imposing goalkeeper who is confident enough to claim the ball and strong enough to absorb aerial challenges becomes paramount. By the time the ball arrives in the small square, the goalkeeper is going to have a forward and a back for company, leaving him with the dilemma of whether to come and claim the ball or leave his defender to do it.

If there is any breakdown in communication, the forward is there to exploit it. The dropping ball was a nerve-wracking prospect for goalkeepers even when they were afforded the protection of the square ball rule. Now, their job will become even tougher.

“It was always a hard rule to perfect,” says McGonigle. “It is tough on the umpires, players and the referee. And I think this is going to make the referees even tougher on forwards because they will be mindful of protecting the goalkeeper.”

That may prove to be the case but even so, the rule change makes their life more difficult. That their situation is viewed sympathetically by Eoin Liston, one of the great goal poachers, is of some consolation.

“I would just be a bit worried goalkeepers are going to make a lot more mistakes now. Their view is going to be cut off. I honestly think there will be losses and gains. There won’t be as much controversy. But when coaches really look at this in detail, they could come up with strategies which could well detract from good goalkeeping performances.

“You could even have situations where the ball will bounce into the net. It could have consequences in the way goalkeepers are picked. There is no harm to experiment but my prediction is that there will be confusion.”

Without doubt, policing the small square is going to become more difficult. Hail Mary kicks dropped into the square in the last few minutes of games when teams are chasing goals will become commonplace. “He was in the square” may well be replaced with “he took the ’keeper out of it.”or “he won the ball cleanly”. It may just lead to a different kind of confusion or, as McGonigle put it, “back to square one”.

SQUARE BALL CALLS: How big decisions had dramatic consequences for teams in Croke Park over the past two summers

DOWN v KILDARE All-Ireland semi-final, 2010

Benny Coulter is one of the supreme exponents of the tapped-in goal but his strike against Kildare in the 12th minute was an example of how badly wrong the officials can call it. The score looked dubious in real time and replays showed that the Down man was in the square when he made his move. However, the goal stood and Kildare eventually lost out by two points.

MEATH v KILDARE Leinster championship, 2011

Graham Geraghty was introduced late in the match and made his customary impact. Seven minutes remained on the clock and Meath trailed by four points when he struck. Replays showed that his fisted goal was perfectly legitimate: he slipped between two Lilywhite defenders on the edge of the square and deflected the dropping ball into the net. The referee cancelled the score as the umpires reached for the flag and the goal was disallowed

DONEGAL v KILDARE All-Ireland quarter final, 2011

Kildare were in a dominant position when Tomas O’Connor, poised on the edge of the square, reacted sharply when John Doyle’s attempt for a point rebounded back into play off the post. It looked as if he was slightly in the square but replays showed that he judged it perfectly. The goal was cancelled out, Donegal came back into the match and Kildare lost out in agonising fashion after extra-time.

MEATH v LOUTH Leinster final, 2010

Joe Sheridan scored one of the most controversial goals in GAA history. The big issue was the fact that the Meath man seemed to carry the ball over the line as he claimed possession and then attempted to kick the ball while sitting on the ground. But that obscured the fact that Séamus Kenny – and possibly Sheridan himself – had entered the small square before the ball.